Grassroots Innovations for Sustainable Development – A New Research Agenda

Community action for sustainable development is an important  element of most countries’ policies for sustainable development. We welcome this growing recognition of the role of civil society in achieving sustainability objectives, but tempered with a few words of caution: First, there is very little empirical evidence to support claims that such objectives are realistic or achievable; second there is a lack of understanding about how to best harness and support the activities that are taking place; and third, existing evidence points to the need for policy support and public investment, and that effective communities may require effective states. In short, the ‘big   society’ rhetoric promises a growing role for civil society, but must not be a smokescreen for community development budget cuts. Spurred on by these issues, we have developed a research agenda to deepen our understanding of these civil society processes, and their potential. Our recent research into this field, which we term ‘grassroots innovations’ examines the processes by which community-led initiatives might develop new solutions for sustainable development, and how those ideas and practices might grow and diffuse into wider society.


Read also: Grassroots Innovations

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The Social Innovation Dynamic

Social innovation is an initiative, product or process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system.  Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact. While social innovation  has recognizable stages and phases, achieving durability and scale is a dynamic process  that requires both emergence of opportunity and deliberate agency, and a connection between the two. The capacity of any society to create a steady flow of social innovations, particularly those which re-engage vulnerable populations, is an important contributor to the overall social and ecological resilience.

Social innovation is needed to build social and ecological resilience in the face of  mounting complex challenges to our economic, social, political and cultural institutions. Intractable problems are not new, but their interconnection in the context of global systems is presenting a new level of urgency and uncertainty. Building capacity at local, regional, national and international levels for not only new inventions and creativity in the social arena but also for system transformation can build resilience in the face of this uncertainty. In particular, the re-engagement of vulnerable populations can have a positive impact on our capacity for innovation and can add to the resilience of the whole.


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Unlocking the Potential of Sharing

The sharing economy allows people to share property, resources, time and skills across online platforms. This can unlock previously unused, or under-used assets – helping people make money from their empty spare room and the tools in their sheds they use once a year. It allows people to go from owning expensive assets, such as cars, to paying for them only when they need them. Individuals can make more from their skills, and work more flexibly. There has been tremendous growth in the sharing economy in recent years, and this is set to continue. This is a huge opportunity and our ambition should be to be the world’s leading sharing economy. As with all disruption, we also need to be careful. Sharing economy businesses and traditional operators need to be treated fairly, particularly in terms of regulation. Consumers must be protected, and trust must be strengthened in online transactions. However, a degree of caution should not stop us from embracing the potential sharing offers for a new, more efficient and more flexible economy.


Read also: Design for Sharing

Give & Take

Teaching, Designing, and Sharing

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Rethinking Smart Cities From The Ground Up

This report tells the stories of cities around the world – from Beijing to Amsterdam, and from London to Jakarta – that are addressing urban challenges by using digital technologies to engage and enable citizens. As cities bring people together to live, work and play, they amplify their ability to create wealth and ideas. But scale and density also bring acute challenges: how to move around people and things; how to provide energy; how to keep people safe. ‘Smart cities’ offer sensors, ‘big data’ and advanced computing as answers to these challenges, but they have often faced criticism for being too concerned with hardware rather than with people. In this report we argue that successful smart cities of the future will combine the best aspects of technology infrastructure while making the most of the growing potential of ‘collaborative technologies‘, technologies that enable greater collaboration between urban communities and between citizens and city governments. How will this work in practice? Drawing on examples from all around the world we investigate four emerging methods which are helping city governments engage and enable citizens: the collaborative economy, crowdsourcing data, collective intelligence and crowdfunding.


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Cultural Mapping – Visualizing Cultural Resources

Cultural mapping is an innovative tool used for gathering information about the cultural landscape and the cultural panorama in local communities. Through this process, cultural elements are recorded – the tangibles like galleries, craft industries, distinctive landmarks, and local events  as well as the intangibles like memories, personal histories, attitudes and values. How cultural mapping is carried out has everything to do with who is doing the mapping and why. What kind of information the organizations collect and how they use the information depends on what is the need for the mapping. Needs can range from defining local culture, identifying gaps and overlaps in cultural activities and practices, to making the case for investing in the communitys cultural development.


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Plenitude: the New Economics of True Wealth

At a moment of ecological decline and continuing financial uncertainty, best-selling author and economist Juliet Schor offers a revolutionary strategy for changing how we think about consumer goods, intrinsic value, and ways to live. Earth, we have a problem: humans are degrading the planet far faster than they are regenerating it. This is leading to increasingly expensive food, energy, transport, and consumer goods. As well, the economic downturn that has accompanied the ecological crisis has led to another type of scarcity: incomes, jobs, and credit are also in short supply. But our usual way back to growth — a debt-financed consumer boom — is no longer an option that our households or our planet can afford. Plenitude deals with these challenges by putting the need for sustainability at the core of its response. But this is not a paradigm of sacrifice being offered — instead, it’s an argument that, through a major shift to new sources of wealth, green technologies, and different ways of living, we can become better off and more economically secure. Around the world, small groups of people are already busy creating lifestyles that offer a way out of the work-and-spend cycle. These pioneers’ lives are scarce in conventional consumer goods, but rich in the newly abundant resources of time, information, creativity, and community. This trend represents a movement away from the conventional market, and offers a way toward an efficient, rewarding life. Plenitude is a road map for the next two decades. In encouraging us to value our gifts — nature, community, intelligence, and time — Schor offers all of us the opportunity to participate in creating a world of enduring wealth and well-being.


Read also: Interview with Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude

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Technologies that are Decentralizing the Economy

The world is becoming more centralized, increasingly focused on economies of scale and transferring wealth to a tiny elite at the top of the financial system. Yet, at the same time there is another movement that is actively working to decentralize the world. The decentralizing technologies and innovations in this list are all related to food, energy, water, shelter and waste and they are not designed to disconnect you from mankind, but rather, they integrate deeply with families, communities, societies, and all humans; in a bottom-up process rather than a centralized top-down structure. Many of these technologies are open-source, some are high-tech and others are low-tech and low-cost solutions. This list is far from exhaustive, in fact, the reader will discover that each of the technologies on this list is just the tip of a larger network of innovations. Thanks to the information available on the internet, the prospects of self-reliance has never been more real, and more achievable.


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Cities and Biodiversity Outlook – Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

The world is increasingly urban, interconnected, and changing. If current trends continue, by 2050 the global urban population is estimated to be 6.3 billion, nearly doubling the 3.5 billion urban dwellers worldwide in 2010. More than 60 percent of the area projected to be urban in 2030 has yet to be built. Most of the growth is expected to happen in small and medium-sized cities, not in megacities. Even under scenarios of considerably slower urbanization rates, urban areas all over the planet are currently facing severe challenges. There is therefore a particular need for enhanced focus on governance capacity to deal with the challenges related to urbanization both within and outside city boundaries . This will require action at multiple scales, from the local to the international. Maximizing the biodiversity potential through improved urban governance globally will require more comprehensive local knowledge, especially of under-researched cities in the Global South.


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Redefining Community in the Ecovillage

Ecovillages provide important insights into the human dimensions of sustainability, but remain relatively unexplored. In this paper I highlight critiques of the society/nature divide and emphasize the need to pay attention to the paradigms that influence how people think and what they do. I discuss the ecovillage model as a rejection of the outmoded “dominant western worldview” in favor of one that recognizes human-ecosystem interdependence. Drawing on field research, I examine the practical means by which ecovillages strive to institute and reinforce an alternative paradigm. In addition to explicit intention, rules, the organization of social interaction, and physical characteristics, I identify an expanded notion of community and its accompanying ethic as distinguishing features of the ecovillage. I suggest the possibility that these are necessary features of a sustainable society.

What’s the organization of a society that is capable of doing ecological design? What does such a society
look like?… And what’s the point, the ultimate object, of ecological design? It’s not just about
houses or water or any particular system. It has to be about how we think. The ultimate object of ecological
design is the human mind – Orr, D.


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From Smart City to Wise City: role of Universities in Place-based Leadership

For a variety of reasons the notion of the smart city has grown in popularity and some even claim that all cities now have to be ‘smart’. For example, some digital enthusiasts argue that advances in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are ushering in a new era in which pervasive electronic connections will inevitably lead to significant changes that make cities more liveable and more democratic.  This paper will cast a critical eye over these claims. It will unpack the smart city rhetoric and show that, in fact, three competing perspectives are struggling for ascendancy within the smart cities discourse: 1) The digital city (emphasising a strong commitment to the use of ICT in governance), 2) The green city (reflecting the growing use of the US phrase smart growth, which is concerned to apply sound urban planning principles), and 3) The learning city (emphasising the way in which cities learn, network and innovate). Five digital danger zones will be identified and discussed. This analysis will suggest that scholars and policy makers who wish to improve the quality of life in cities should focus their attention on wisdom, not smartness. Civic leaders need to exercise judgement based on values if they are to create inclusive, sustainable cities. It is not enough to be clever, quick, ingenious, nor will it help if Big Data is superseded by Even Bigger Data. Universities can play a much more active role in place-based leadership in the cities where they are located. To do this effectively they need to reconsider the nature of modern scholarship. The paper will show how a growing number of universities are doing precisely this. Two respected examples will be presented to show how urban universities, if they are committed to engaged scholarship, can make a significant contribution to the creation of the wise city.


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